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How to fail at writing

 

Quote by Thomas Edison, "I have not failed. I have just found 9999 ways that do not work." in blue lettering on white.

I’m all for the idea that failure is merely figuring out what doesn’t work, finding out where you need to focus your energy, and that it’s an important part of the learning process that we often stigmatize to our detriment.

However, I really wish my method for producing a novel didn’t resemble Edison’s light bulb-inventing process as much as it does. I’m mainly a pantser—a seat-of-the-pants or “organic” writer—who doesn’t plot my books in advance. (Believe me, I've tried.) For a logic-oriented person who likes to make lists, and plans just about everything else in her life, this is disconcerting, irritating, annoying, and a long list of other synonyms.

For my books, I have learned that I need to understand what the antagonist is doing and why, or I won’t get past the first quarter of the book, no matter how exciting my initial premise. Without the villain's goal and motivation, I can’t figure out how to escalate their actions against the main characters in a way that makes sense.

I also need to know the inner conflict between the hero and heroine (what’s keeping them apart), and the outer conflict (what’s keeping them together). The latter usually relates back to the antagonist/villain, so it’s all linked.

In order to determine these things—because even when I think I have them, I usually don’t—I must write. I write scenes (or partial scenes), discard them, write new ones, repeat. Every scene (or set of scenes) is a method for testing an idea. It also spurs my subconscious to go to work on the story in ways it just won't if I'm only sitting around thinking or making lists of ideas.

Eventually, I do nail it. (Hopefully, it doesn’t take 9,999 times!!) And once I have the early stuff figured out, the rest of the book comes together much faster. Not fast exactly, but faster.

So, if you've ever wondered why it takes me so damn long to write a book, mystery solved.

I’m slowly learning to, well, not love, but at least work with my method. Honestly, I feel lucky I have a process at all. I’m writing, so life is good.

How about you? Do you have a process for writing—or anything else—that frustrates you, but ultimately works?

14 Comments

  1. Reply

    I’m a discovery writer as well. I have to feel my way through the story, bit by bit. I usually have an idea of what I want to happen but it takes me a draft or two to figure it out. But that’s okay. I’ve gotten to the point where I can figure it out fast enough to publish 3 or 4 books per year. That’s plenty fine for this world of publishing.

    • Reply

      Hi, S.J.! Ooh, I like the term discovery writer. That’s a great way to describe it. 3-4 books a year is fabulous! I’m trying to increase my frequency, and my process isn’t the only thing to blame, sadly. 2018 is the year of working on improving that too. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

      • Reply

        Discovery writer comes from Dan Wells, I believe, and I heard it on the Writing Excuses podcast. I think it’s the perfect term for writers like us! Certainly, lots of personal stuff can also get in the way of writing. The year we renovated my kitchen was my worst writing year ever. Lol. I just could not concentrate!

  2. Maria

    Reply

    I try to plan and to at least know where I’m going. But I do get sidetracked into exploring different outcomes, even when editing. But that’s what makes writing so interesting.

  3. Reply

    Thank you for this article. I really enjoyed reading it even though I am myself not trying to write any sort of book – I use Scrivener for revising and organizing my poems.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Alan! That’s a great use for Scrivener. I use it similarly for blog posts. I hope your poetry writing process isn’t quite as convoluted!

  4. Reply

    Gwen, your method gives me a lot of comfort! So thank you. I like your questions regarding what is keeping the love interests apart and what keeps them trying, more or less.

    I have whittled down my novel to 143 scenes and 93,000 words. I have more whittling to do. And more deepening. I am trying to use the method of working backwards from a plot point as in “what needs to happen to get here?”

    Would you say that for each plot point or sub plot you figure on or end up with a certain number of scenes?

    • Reply

      I’m glad learning about my process helps, Dorette. It’s nice to know we’re not alone in having a crazy way of doing things. 😉

      I don’t have a specific number of scenes that I shoot for or consistently end up with for each plot point. It depends on the length of the overall manuscript, and how much I need to develop that part to make it work. I write toward types of plot points, meaning that I know if I’m at around 40% of my planned length that I need to steer the characters toward the midpoint–even if I haven’t figured out what exactly will happen there. It’s very loose and I try not to overthink it. I write what works for the book and use structure as a guideline for making sure nothing important is missing. Good luck whittling!

  5. Nate

    Reply

    Gwen,
    The only way I’ve found is keeping it real! I do no good unless I write about life experiences and I’ve had so many of those! I get inspired and write for hours recalling my real life experiences. We all have such different and sometimes conflicting styles bur\t what works is what works I guess!

    • Reply

      That’s great, Nate! I think it can be instructive to see what other people do, and maybe pick up some ideas from them, but we all have to learn to embrace/love our own process so we don’t kill the joy of writing. Keep up those fantastic writing sprints!

  6. Reply

    ” I have learned that I need to understand what the antagonist is doing and why, or I won’t get past the first quarter of the book,…”
    Your “villain” insight reminded me of some material I have found here https://stevenpressfield.com/category/writing-wednesdays/
    Scroll down to ” How Steven Spielberg Handles his Villains” There are a number of “villain” articles following on page 1 and 2 of the post.

    As always, I enjoyed your post. You have such a clear and understandable way of stating your insight. ( Has anyone mentioned to you, you just might be a good teacher?) Sounds like to me you are finding your method which I’m guessing carries its own rewards.

    • Reply

      Ooh, I love that, Curtis. Thank you for sharing. Steven Pressfield has lots of great insights. I appreciate your kind words! My method may not be great, but at least now I know what to expect. 😉

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